Happy returns

The Birthday Party is agelessly cruel
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A man hides from the world in a shabby seaside rooming house until two men arrive determined to take him away. The latter represent a kind of conformity, brutal and ruthless in its determination and tactics. The turning point in their showdown with the wayward man will be the birthday party they help his smitten elderly landlady throw for her sole tenant.

The mystery-laden simplicity of The Birthday Party 's plot provides ample room for absorbing the subtle details of the relationships it presents, and Berkeley's Aurora Theatre brings those out expertly. Artistic director Tom Ross's production is not only sure and intelligent but palpably enthusiastic in its essaying of this nearly 50-year-old play, which is both Harold Pinter's first full-length work and Aurora's first production of his work since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2005.

A scene of domestic nonbliss opens the play: housewife Meg (Phoebe Moyer) and deck-chair attendant Petey (Chris Ayles) are an aging couple mired in a domestic routine whose laconic, staccato rhythms are bleakly comedic. Their empty chat introduces the mix of precise characterization and the ruse that the play will go on developing. Their frowsy little boarding house, meanwhile, offers (in the choice details of Richard Olmsted's set design) a muted clash of wallpaper, a lumpy armchair with soiled cushions, and a small, serviceable dining table among an obligatory arrangement of homey knickknacks. The place, it seems, is avoided like the plague by all but permanent resident Stanley (a dyspeptic antihero brilliantly realized by James Carpenter).

Vaguely suggesting guilt, despondency, or disgust, Stanley rises late, jabs at his cornflakes, complains about them and the tea, lights a cig, then spends the day doing nothing. The psychosexual aspects of this ad hoc family get played up grotesquely in Meg's mommy lust for the younger man, in the clash of her youthful eagerness and frumpy exterior, and maybe just a bit in the ultimately impotent patriarch Petey's playful moniker. The seductive girl next door, Lulu (Emily Jordan), and the arrival of Goldberg (Julian Lopez-Morillas) and McCann (Michael Ray Wisely) up the ante, threatening to sunder the bonds of the little household.

The genteel Goldberg and strong-arm McCann are precise and lively versions of their terrorist types and flaunt their respective Jewish and Irish Catholic backgrounds just enough to give their authoritarianism a religious as well as secular inflection. But power's way is the way of the playground, and the power play by Goldberg and McCann has a lot of play in it. They're keen on a set of games that never leave them far from grade school bullies.

The birthday party, the central event of the play, provides a kind of formal, ritual occasion for children still fighting, struggling, and pushing each other around, stubbornly refusing to give any ground. The pushing and shoving never really stops, but the party offers a set of temporary restrictions — new parameters for the game. And it's a literal game of blind man's bluff that caps the dreary, drunken celebration at which Stanley (who insists it is not his birthday) is the unwilling guest of honor.

Fifty years of modern theater, including not least Pinter's subsequent work, have no doubt made a play like The Birthday Party more approachable, but it remains too esoteric for many. Instead of the elusive language used in The Birthday Party, audiences often expect something more akin to a crossword puzzle — enter the appropriate words in their respective boxes, and you achieve a definitive solution: nice, neat, and self-contained.

But if The Birthday Party is a puzzle, it is open-ended and without a solution, or rather with a series of partial and contingent solutions. Words are not really evidence here.

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